Statement by Labour leader Brendan Howlin TD, post European Council, Brussels, 14-15 December 2017

16 January 2018

It is now nearly a month on since the December EU Council meeting.

Significant progress was made on Brexit and on the EU leader’s agenda.

It is unfortunate that debate in Ireland on many of the changes underway in Europe has been limited.

And more often lost in the noise over Brexit.

Europe is changing.

The rush to advance the defence agenda is a central example.

For six months I called in this House for a debate on PESCO.

Permanent structured co-operation on defence and security matters has been central to the changes underway in Europe.

It is therefore a shame that the Government, aided by Fianna Fáil rushed through such a significant shift in Ireland’s position before Christmas.

The main agenda item of the Council before Article 50 discussions was Defence.

As I said in December, Ireland should have taken the same approach as Malta

They adopted a wait and see approach, as it believed certain operations may be in breach of the neutrality clause of their constitution.

The Government has still not informed us which of the 17 joint projects under PESCO they intend to sign up for.

The European Defence Fund will now seek to finance projects under the European Defence Industrial Development Programme by 2019. This is a priority of the Council.

I doubt very few Irish people believe we are in the EU to finance and develop arms and military equipment but that is now the path our Union is embarking on.

Work is now to proceed on proposals for EU-NATO cooperation. Alongside this, work will be done on military mobility. That is polite language for preparing for war.

It is clear that this process is laying the groundwork for an EU army Taoiseach, and you will be the Leader who signed up Ireland for it.

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On foreign policy and the Middle East, I want to welcome the firm commitment by Leaders reiterating support for a two state solution for Israel and Palestine, and that the EU position on Jerusalem remains unchanged.

It is three years since the Dáil unanimously voted to recognise the state of Palestine.

The Irish Government should now move to declare it’s recognition of Palestine as a state, and more efforts are needed to stop and reverse the development by Israel of illegal settlements. This should be pursued at an EU level.

It is clear that we cannot expect leadership from the US on this.

Instead of building up armies, Europe should be focused on fostering peace.

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The Council welcomed the progress on climate change and the outcome of the One Planet Summit in Paris.

That work now needs to be progressed further.

In the context of the next EU budget there is an interesting proposal from the Commission that proceeds and profits of the EU emissions trading system should move from a state level to an EU level.

This is one of the proposals put forward to fill the EU budget gap when the UK leaves.

The Government’s view on this proposal and the other financial proposals would be welcome.

More than likely Ireland will be asked to make a larger contribution to the EU budget. There should be an open public debate on that.

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The second agenda item for the Council was the Social Dimension, Education and Culture.

Last month, I flagged a number of ideas proposed by the Party of European Socialists. I hope the Government will consider those.

A key agenda item at the Council was extending the Erasmus Programme on its 30th Anniversary.

With the death of Peter Sutherland it is timely to remember the work he did to create that ground breaking programme as Commissioner.

The proposal from the Leaders Agenda to ‘envisage’ an Erasmus for young artists would be fitting legacy to his work, and a tangible benefit for EU citizens.

The outcomes of the Council also refers to a proposal to encourage the emergence by 2024 of some twenty ‘European Universities’

The Government might outline what this will mean, and if an Irish university will be encouraged to pursue this goal.

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The last Council was dominated by Brexit.

I was sceptical as to whether progress could be made.

It went to the wire, but thankfully agreement was reached.

The progress was real, and has lessened the risk for Ireland of a hard Brexit.

There has still not been a reckoning in the UK over their continued desire to have all the benefits of EU membership without any of the obligations.

The December Council meeting agreed to begin work on the type of transition agreement that will be put in place for approximately two years.

It also will open discussions on the type of framework for the future relationship of the EU and the UK.

In advance of the March Council meeting the detail of both the transition and the future relationship will have to be worked out. Some details are now emerging.

I believe that only the UK staying in the single market and customs union can deliver the type of border and future trade arrangements that Ireland needs.

The recent move by the UK Labour Party to acknowledge the need to stay in the Customs Union, and some form of linkage to the single market is welcome.

But the news that Norway would seek radical changes to the EEA in the event of special UK access to parts of the single market is a reflection of the constraints the UK faces.

Draft guidelines for the second phase of Brexit negotiations have also been circulated to member states and their comments reflected in the paper prepared by Barnier

According to reports, EU countries have sought many changes to the guidelines

For example Poland is seeking the continued right of citizens to work in the UK right up to the end of a transition period, and the right to permanently remain after a new trade agreement comes into place.

The UK will also have to comply with EU trade policy right up to 2021, and will not be able to strike its own deals during the transition, despite losing access to trade agreements with 50 countries once it leaves in March 2019.

This is of course, if the EU decides to authorise access to the trade deals for the UK.

It is likely the transition agreement will allow the UK access to EU trade deals but no doubt that will come at a cost.

And it will have to follow all rules and regulations, with no voice in deciding their content. 

Once the British realise the impact of these conditions it will spark fierce resistance in the pro-Brexit press.

The next few months will be of immense importance to Ireland and developments will be monitored closely.

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I referenced the moves underway to identify funding for the next EU budget. This brings me to where the EU will go when the UK exits.

The debate started by the French President has been added to by the SPD in Germany in the context of coalition discussions.

The future of Europe is a core concern for the Labour Party and all social democrats.

Across Europe, parties of the left fought long and hard to advance this political project and the benefits it would bring to our people.

Laws like the working time directive, on parental leave on o women’s rights have been a real difference to EU citizens.

As I said in December a is debate needed on how we can bring citizens with us on the future type of Europe we want – and the moves by the Government to facilitate that is welcome.

The Taoiseach will outline his vision of the Future of Europe at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday.

When he returns we might have a similar debate on it in this chamber.

At the last Taoiseach’s questions before Christmas I asked you what trips you had planned in the next 6 months.

I was surprised like many to see a visit to the Hungarian Prime Minister in the first week of January.

It is important to note that this was the Taoiseach’s third bilateral visit since being elected, after the UK and France.

Not the Nordics, not the Netherlands, not Germany, Italy or Spain.

But a country that is close to becoming a pariah within the EU.

Last month, the Taoiseach offered congratulations to the new Austrian Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, on cementing his coalition with the far-right Freedom Party.  

Twenty years ago a similar coalition left progressives in Europe dismayed and Austria ostracised within the EU.

But instead of any expression of concern or regret about the rise of far-right politics in an EU state, our Taoiseach chose merely to congratulate and celebrate the election of a fellow centre-right leader.

Mr Orban is an opponent of liberal democracy, who is hostile not just to the EU, but to its values too.

He uses the threat of immigration to preside over the erosion of democratic values under the guise of a conservative nationalism.

Within the EU, Orban’s only close ally is the Polish Law and Justice Party, under whose rule Poland faces sanctions as they seek to undermine democracy by eroding judicial independence.

The purpose of the recent Polish-Hungarian meeting was to discuss how they could cooperate to prevent the EU imposing any sanctions on either country for breaking the democratic rules of the EU.

Deciding to visit a leader such as Viktor Orban gives his extremist views greater weight and credibility within the EU.

Making the controversial decision to embark upon such a visit should not have been easy.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Taoiseach deliberately chose to avoid a Dáil debate on the visit to Hungary.

The creeping influence of far-right politicians on EU politics will not be good for Ireland.

The values they espouse have found some reach over recent years.

In France, Marine Le Pen came far too close to victory on the back of anti-immigrant, anti-EU rhetoric.

Beyond a small few fringe voices, Ireland has not turned away from the European project that has delivered peace and relative prosperity for decades. 

Nor have we turned our backs to those who are fleeing appalling places of violence and repression. 

But protecting our values requires constant vigilance. It requires that we call out fascism and authoritarianism wherever we see them. 

And it demands that we never, ever, give cover or credibility to anti-democratic or far-right forces.

What I find most chilling about Viktor Orban is his complete disdain for constitutional limits and independent judiciaries.

These are the checks and balances that have been carefully designed to prevent the excessive accumulation of power in the hands of a single man.

Mr. Orban denigrates them because he is, at heart, an anti-democratic authoritarian.

Brexit, in particular, has cast Ireland into shark-infested waters.

But values matter as well as interests, and an important debate has commenced on the Future of Europe.

I’m uncomfortable when our Taoiseach asserts common ground with Viktor Orban.

Who we choose to be friends with speaks volumes about our values – as people, and as a nation.

Ireland should be clear and principled in our vision of Europe’s shared future.

Our Government should think very carefully about the friends they are cultivating.

 

 

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